A Different Kind of Race

On September 12, Thursday morning before the Run Rabbit Run 100, I sit at the kitchen table dutifully finalizing my preparation for the next day’s race. Having never run the course or any of the trails around Steamboat, I am deeply concentrated on trying to match sugar and caffeine to the map and course description. Suddenly, I am interrupted by a faint ringing sound that seems to be coming from beneath my chair. Indeed, the noise is emanating from our crawl space, more precisely from the water alarm placed beneath our boiler. I have been excited about the recent continuous rain, thinking it might make for some tough conditions at the hundred, but the sight of water pooling under our boiler has me slightly less amused. With hope of saving our boiler, I grab a few soft flasks and a spare hydration bladder out of my race bag, the most convenient receptacles for Deanne and me to scoop water.

A few hours later, the situation appears to only be further deteriorating. The power is out all over town so, despite having borrowed a sump pump, we have to run it off of a generator. Our neighbour to the west has four feet of water in her basement and the one to the east does not look much better. We have been digging improvised French drains to try and redirect some of the flow, but the ground is so saturated that water is overflowing from our well. We are getting word of road closures all around us, along with much more severe damage down in the canyons. We work late into the night, but I keep a small sliver of hope that, if the storm dies down, I might still make the race in the morning given the noon start.

The rain continues all night and, by morning, a raging torrent has blown through the bank of my neighbor’s creek, affecting everyone downstream. We get to work digging, shoveling, putting rebar and tarps into the wall to divert the water. Being tapered and fit to run 100 miles, I am glad to have a good outlet to channel all my energy. I enjoy physical labor and, after many hours of toil, I come to think there is not much difference in the pleasure I find running or digging trenches. In a lot of ways, both activities share similarities: hard physical work, contact with the land, a release, and provider of energy. Digging also has the benefit of being directly meaningful to others, something I often struggle to reconcile with my running.

Joe Grant - working man

The next day, my neighbor Dave calls upon me to enlist with the Gold Hill Fire Department to help with search-and-rescue efforts down in Rowena. The small community of about 15 homes sits in Lefthand Canyon between Lickskillet Road and the fire station. Vehicle access is impossible due to high waters and washed-out roads, so Dave and I lead a crew of 10 down a mix of steep, rugged game trails and old mining roads. We bushwhack through some thick brush paralleling the creek to the first home. Cliff, a grizzled Vietnam veteran emerges, greeting us kindly. His bandana looks as if it is a part of his forehead, faded and encrusted into his skin. His thick, white beard is stained with smoke marks. He is not going anywhere for he would have to leave his cats. He has plenty of food and is content to sit out the flood. Our objective is to give people who wish to evacuate an option to do so now, so as to then mobilize rescue efforts elsewhere over the coming days. In the next home, Pat, is staying as well. He tells us that his house is for sale as is and that he will part with his trials bike for $3,000. A boat would be a necessity would any of us want to consider his offers. All the people we encounter wish to stay. One group of folks have a satellite dish rigged up, so they still receive phone and Internet. They are enjoying a few brews and a cookout on the deck while the road drifts away not far below them. Pam’s wonderful garden appears untouched despite some of the water sweeping through it the day before. She has her toenails painted and is wearing cute, turquoise earrings. She is happy to hear that Cliff is okay despite having lived here for 37 years and never having seen the man. One gentleman is getting a chopper ride out with the National Guard. He has a plane to China the next day to pick up his mail-order bride. The folks in Rowena are eclectic, hearty, and despite the circumstances, an incredibly welcoming community. With the conveniences of modern life gone with the waters, it is a pleasure (and a relief) to drop in on people on foot, to find them safe, and to share a brief moment of conversation. In some ways, through disaster, I find that we are more aware of what matters, of community, of taking time to really hear how people are doing without the usual distractions of phones, Internet, and busy work lives.

With our mission over, I am sent to run the five miles back up the canyon to retrieve our vehicles and bring one back down to Sunshine for a more rapid exit for our crew. As I plow up the hill, taking every off-trail shortcut I know, I am happy to connect my running with a more utilitarian purpose. Running 100 miles is a powerful and meaningful experience, but I am thankful that the profundity of such experiences can transcend the scope of a race and take on practical utility in our daily lives.

Colorado Front Range - flooding road damage

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For those of you in Boulder and its flood-affected environs, did you put your running ability to work when the waters came?
  • And, for the rest of us, have you ever found yourself using running as aid in other, crucial aspects of life?
Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 10 comments

  1. Vern L

    You said, "Digging also has the benefit of being directly meaningful to others, something I often struggle to reconcile with my running."

    I run for myself and others too, but they don't really understand. If I didn't run, they'd understand a lot better. In order to keep my dysfunction(s) to myself, I much prefer to keep running.

    Excellent work you did helping out there. I wonder how many people helped out, versus how many ran the race anyway. Not judging, just curious.

    1. Eric C

      First off, I am glad to see this! I was wondering how to find out what had happened to Joe and the rest of the hilltop-dwellers.

      Vern's question is a good one. I live in Longmont. I started the race. A buddy and I left for the Boat late Thursday morning, having no idea how serious it was going to get. Once we were out of Boulder County, the drive was easy. We spent a good part of the night Thursday and Friday morning watching the news and wondering what to do. Eventually we decided we couldn't get home even if we tried due to all the road closures, and were stuck. Oh well, might as well run 100 miles eh?

      Just to make the story even more amusing, I was plagued by lower GI pains from before the start of the race, and finally had to drop at Long Lake (53 mi). And now I sit here at home, recovering from an unexpected appendectomy! (Fred, forgive me for dropping out of your race!! ;) I am SOOOO glad I didn't spring that nasty little surprise on the volunteers at Long Lake in the middle of the night.

      My house was spared, but my family and I have spent many of the intervening days helping clean out basements, and washing load after load of stinky laundry for folks who have no means to do their own.

      It's been an interesting time to be reminded about what really matters in life, and the place our running has in that (yes it does have a place)

  2. Paul

    Loved this…Joe, I think you should just do this from now on. Just travel from one remote community to another by foot & blog it! ;)

    Awesome piece of writing & doing! :)

  3. Andy

    I had been wondering for a while when a piece about the floods would appear on iRF given the effects on the ultra epicenter of Boulder and its surrounds. Kudos to Bryon, Meghan et al. for putting this essay out there. There couldn't be a more eloquent voice than Joe's to explore the calamity that has struck CO and yet, without a hint of kitsch, find a nexus with running that is meaningful and inspiring. Thanks.

  4. Scott

    Bein a Nashville resident, I'm/we're well aware of the impact that flood waters can have on everything around us. Your willingness to dig right in and help your community over running RRR100 shows your true character. "Through disaster, I find that we are more aware of what matters…". Well said, and true. Glad the folks you came across were safe. Best of luck in your upcoming adventures, Joe!

  5. Shelby

    Possibly my favorite iRunFar essay to date. It's a delight to hear how connected you are to your neighbors (what an eclectic bunch, too!) and your willingness to put people over racing. While being fit does have an indirect societal good, it's great that you were able to use your running fitness to make a tangible contribution during the flood.

  6. John M.

    Truth often overshadows fiction–thank you for all you did, for sharing the story, and for showing that there are still folks willing to change priorities and pause to help.

    In response to Meghan's second question: My wife and I get the occasional call to come to the nearby trail system for S&R stuff. The area is not particularly wild or dangerous though sometimes cold and wet. We are called because we know the 30ish miles by heart and our "expertise" is useful in defining search areas, and, even though members of the elderhostel, we then start running…


  7. Sam Winebaum

    What is important, others. Using incredible race tapered fitness, knowledge of the terrain from hours of training and exploring to help others, even more important. A marvelous essay. Thank you Joe for digging in.

      1. jeff

        People move to my area because of the location . Some involve themselves with the local activities but most would rather be left alone . Times of need create bonding . Bonding , I imagine , is the foundation for a community . I take back my original comment . There is no irony at all .

  8. Jamie

    Love it Joe. I found myself, living in Westminster, desperately wanting to head up and help somehow and trying to reconcile that with the fact that I would likely be in the way more than anything.

    One of the things I've noticed in the past week and a bit is that the first reports of flood damage I saw came not from first responders but from runners heading up into the hills doing whatever they could to help.

  9. adam w

    Those who give time(countless hrs), energy and money to join volunteer rescue/fire dept. play a vital role in the fabric of our country. It's great that you used your skills to help then out Joe.

    You've had a rude introduction to home ownership!

  10. UltraManDan

    Amazingly written! This brings to light the true compassion of the ultra community, even to those who are not runners themselves. Compassion is an instrument that should be utilized everyday!

  11. Gaby - Fitness Train

    Such a heartwarming post! Though devastating at times, it can be amazing how calamities bring people closer and most of all, bring out the best in us. Keep it up Joe! ;)

  12. Amanda

    Thanks for putting people/community before racing/fame/money. It seems like an obvious decision, and not so for some, in practice. It's hard to train so long and to put in so much effort (for a 100) to see everything change overnight. Here's hoping your good karma keeps you and your house (and family) as safe/whole as possible.

  13. Todd

    Impressive work, Joe. I, too, was caught up in the floods. I, too, had a photo snapped while digging a trench, shirtless and shoeless, but my abs don't look quite like yours. I decided to try to run out of my canyon, to commute to the school where I teach, but 2.5 hours each way, with a couple thousand feet gained and lost, leaves me too tired to teach well. I guess I will stick to driving 75 minutes each way instead, until the road is repaired.

  14. Wayne

    …and people, looking in from outside this wonderful community, trail and ultra runners, wonder wby I do this. Going forward I now have a web address to send them to show why, as that's where they spend most of their time anyway, on the computer. Thank you Joe and irunfar for saying it much better than I ecver could.

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